IMB Governance Review Questionnaire

AMIMB Submission April 2016

Where we are coming from:

From the point of view of AMIMB members and in summary, the deficiencies of the current apparatus, resulting from governance, leadership, management and structural deficits, are:

  • general paralysis much of the time; it is never clear who is in charge;
  • the only salaried staff are administrative and are in the service of the IMB’s focus Ministry, the MoJ – it is hardly surprising that the bulk of NC Minutes have to do with relatively unimportant administrative and procedural matters;
  • a virtual absence of strategic thinking;
  • lack of central capacity and authority to control the quality of local monitoring – the quality of monitoring is variable from Board to Board, as is what they consider it appropriate to attend to, and their local impact;
  • there are no agreed published standards;
  • lack of professional support for local Board members, who thus lack professional development and breadth of awareness of national and international trends, patterns, research, etc., relevant to their work;
  • lack of any national capacity or impulse to integrate, analyse and then to speak out about the outcomes of monitoring – the IMB has neither public voice nor public recognition, and so it achieves little national impact;
  • an inappropriately dependent posture on practical matters in relation to the Ministry of Justice, and thus a lack of true independence of action.

In short, while the nation, the prison system and prisoners generally are widely felt to be better off with IMBs than without, IMBs disappoint by punching well below their weight.

In summary again, we argue for a thorough structural reform aimed at:

  • rectifying the many governance deficiencies in part by:
    • replacing the National Council with a Board of Directors, some of whom would be drawn from the ranks of board members, others would be non-execs from outside the IMB system, under an independent non-executive Chairman (replacing the President), accountable to the same individuals/bodies as is HMCIP, at any particular time;
    • replacing the Secretariat with a combined professional and administrative staff group under a Chief Executive (new post), accountable to the governing Board;
  • achieving much closer alliance with the several criminal justice system inspectorates and OPCAT monitoring organisations (but not fusing with the Prisons Inspectorate – the two organisations should maintain separate modalities of operation and be explicitly complimentary);
  • providing thoroughgoing and expert professional support for, information flow to, and consultation with monitors and their local boards attached to places of detention, ensuring high common standards, collaboration across the piece, etc.; and
  • retaining the local board structure (under new terms of reference that spell out more precisely minimum monitoring standards and practices and the scope each local board (the Periphery) has for independent interpretation and action, under the control of a stronger Centre), which we see as vital to the maintenance of volunteers’ motivation, and to the idea that IMBs represent a link between the closed world of prisons, and the citizenship.

In answer to your questions

Question 1

Option 3 comes closest, but dangerously flawed and would fail to deliver against expectations.

Options 1 and 2 would be a waste of effort:

  • Option 1:  This model does not move the IMB structure and governance very far forward.  Can do better!
  • Option 2:  This still does not achieve one organisation with clear leadership as the Secretariat would still be separate; the NC would still not have any authority or capacity to control the quality of local monitoring; still lack of professional support for boards; no central professional analysis and research to enable ‘speaking out’ regarding outcomes of monitoring; salaried staff still provide an administrative function only.

Question 2

None pass muster.

Question 3

Option 3 makes a feeble move to eliminate the Secretariat, whose separate status has been a part of the problem.  It does nothing towards reform of the relationship between Centre and Periphery.

Question 4

None of them make any viable move in this vital direction, as they stand, though Option 3 offers something of a start.

Question 5

None pass muster.

Question 6

AMIMB accepts that Option 3 is the nearest to the blueprint we favour, but we consider it misses the opportunity to deliver what’s needed.  We recommend two principal (indeed fundamental) changes to this model:

(i)  The Chief Executive should NOT chair the Main Board; for him or her to do so would be frankly dangerous.  We would like to see the President converted into an independent volunteer non-executive chair of a Main Board or Governing Council comprising members selected for their expertise alongside independent non-executive externals.  We consider it important that the new Chairperson be accountable in identical manner to the Chief Inspector of Prisons.  This would not imply necessarily that they need therefore to be of equivalent rank, but it would signify their essential collegiality.  Ideally there would be a formal link also to the Parliamentary Justice select Committee.

Reporting to the Board would be a new appointee, a Chief Executive with relevant professional and management experience, who would head up a salaried staff unit comprising a professional monitoring support group and an admin group. On this model the Board would set strategy, advised by the Chief Executive.  The Board would oversee the Chief Executive’s

  • direct management of the central staff unit; and
  • facilitation of the work of, and liaison with, the IMBs attached to places of detention. 

The Board would exert authority over IMBs, as necessary, advised by the Chief Executive.

(ii)  The second point would therefore be the disbandment of the Secretariat and its replacement, as described above, by a dual headquarters staff, set up as an arms-length body outside the civil service. 

The admin group would have a distinctly lighter touch than the existing Secretariat.  In our view, the admin group in the headquarters staff would have strategic HR capability, first and foremost, rather than the current focus on admin detail.  In order for the IMB system to operate at the quality and effectiveness levels we envisage, the opportunities offered need to be nationally widely known about and highly prized.  The system will only deliver at the right level if it has access to a high caliber of recruit to every function, from the Main Board and staff groups to the volunteers on the local boards.  Concentrated and persistent attention to recruitment and retention are vital.

The professional group would be entirely new, and would be, in our view, utterly essential to turning the IMB system round to a point where it fully meets expectations.  It would provide technical and professional underpinning to:

  • the two senior officers and the Governing Council in their work:
    • with the local monitoring boards, and
    • in speaking out publicly about the IMB system’s conclusions, lobbying for change, etc.; and
  • the local boards themselves on the periphery.

Here is a lightly edited repeat of some bullets from AMIMB’s July 2015 ‘Independent Monitor’ article about the sort of professional support such a new highly competent small staff unit would provide:

  • systematic research and analysis of the outcomes from local monitoring to detect and investigate trends and patterns; framing questions to boards; collecting and analysing information; articulating conclusions; providing an observatory function; keeping members informed about germane developments nationally and abroad;
  • seeking out the best monitoring theory and practice from around the world and finding ways of interpreting them to the British context;
  • by being absolutely clear about the outcomes of monitoring, speaking out about the IMB system’s findings, thereby achieving public recognition of its authority, and impact on penal policy; lobbying for better evidence-based rehabilitation-oriented policies;
  • providing and supporting the provision of world-class professional development opportunities for members with intellectual, research or policy content;
  • establishing co-working between boards; and with other groups of inspectors or monitors within the criminal justice system;
  • bringing for consideration other models (whether of prisons policy and practice, or of monitoring) from other jurisdictions;
  • celebrating members’ achievements and exploiting their skills;
  • offering and monitoring standards, and providing support where weaknesses are identified.

Given that the Main Board would be more a governing than a representative body, some additional structure or process may well be appropriate, to ensure that members and their boards have a voice.  We would favour twice-yearly conferences/general meetings for this purpose rather than an additional representative council, as one of the principal deficits of the current system is a lack of opportunity for board members to enlarge their perspective by getting to know and debating their practice with colleagues from other boards and other types of establishment.

Question 7

The views expressed here have been aired and shared with the membership, and take account of all views expressed.

Question 8

This experiment (selected prisons with enhanced autonomy) raises many questions and risks, as well as being generally welcome.  Among the many questions will be issues of equity across the prison estate – will it be fair to allow the emergence of wide disparities in provision between neighbouring prisons?  On risks, how far will NOMS go in vetting an ‘autonomous’ governor’s ideas before he or she actually gets clearance to implement them, and how far will NOMS allow an experiment that some may believe to be failing, to run, before stepping in?

It would be naïve to think this might be a complete policy.  More likely it is the nose-probe of a policy that has not yet been revealed in its intended mature form; this is surely the trial introduction of something larger: Foundation or Academy prisons?  What relationship does this have with privatisation?  Whatever the answers to these conjectures, AMIMB interprets this as revealing Mr Gove trying to recover some wriggle room for his (most welcome) intentions, out of the wasteland left by his predecessor. 

The proposed policy creates a space where the need for effective, subtle, wide-awake and intelligent IMBs has never been stronger.  This in turn highlights an area where the discourse concerning IMBs has always been deficient: the suggestion that the role of IMBs is to be the ‘eyes and ears of the Secretary of State’.  Certainly a good IMB channels concerns up to this level if it cannot secure resolution in the ordinary course of things.  But it is an IMB’s unique privilege to be engaged in the ‘ordinary course of things’, day-by-day familiar and omni-present without notification and unannounced, together with a monitoring toolbag, that distinguishes IMBs from the Inspectorate.  Two things flow from this, neither of which has received sufficient critical attention in recent analyses, not from the IMB Central Bodies and not from elsewhere.  The first we simply mention here and then leave for future examination.  The second we develop into our answer to this question:

(a)  An IMB is fundamentally also the eyes and ears of the electorate, the citizens of the land, the English and Welsh public, in whose name a selection of their peers are incarcerated.

(b)  A good IMB will also be recognised by a good Governor as their eyes and ears too.

It will be an IMB’s duty to monitor the host of questions and risks alluded to at the top of this section, of course.  But the crucial piece, for NOMS as for prisoners and the general public, is that in the relationship between Governor and IMB Chair, lies part of an answer to many of NOMS’s worries about how to ‘control’ this new initiative.  If the right people are in post and if they have trust, then the IMB can be the eyes and ears of the Governor.  In the right circumstances it is entirely possible for an IMB Chair to raise serious criticisms and concerns, as part of a respectful, indeed a collegial, relationship between two totally independent professionals.  While they have very different responsibilities, they share vital elements of a common agenda for better outcomes for prisoners and for society.  Together, they can ensure that most problems never mature to break the surface.

An IMB will always report formally once a year, and the Secretary of State might be expected to read such reports from IMBs attached to ‘autonomous’ prisons with unusual attention, as they would describe issues of medium importance that have not yet been resolved.  Most interesting issues would hardly find a mention in the Annual Report, however.  Most would have been nipped in the bud at Governor-IMB level.  The serious ones, where the Governor and the IMB could not achieve agreement, would already and long ago have been escalated directly for the attention of nominated senior figures in the Ministry.

NOMS has doubtless already exercised extreme care in the selection and conditioning of its ‘chosen few’, within the context of a generally active and targeted recruitment and retention policy.  What competence/capacity does the IMB system currently have to do likewise?